Authors: Doug L Hoffman
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Science Fiction
Doug L. Hoffman
Copyright © 2012 by Doug L. Hoffman
All rights reserved.
The Resilient Earth Press
This is a work of fiction, a science fiction novel of the type sometimes called a space opera. Over time that term has often been used derisively, though sometimes lovingly. I use space opera to denote a particular type of science fiction that I read as a youth; works penned by such old masters as Arthur C. Clarke, Issac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp, Robert Heinlein and E.E. “Doc” Smith. Smith in particular defined this genre for me with his
Skylark of Space
series, the first novels I recall purchasing for my own reading pleasure.
Many, though certainly not all, of the novels from these giants of SF started on Earth, more or less in the present day. Not long ago, in a galaxy far, far away; not star-date 24-something-or-other; but in the here and now. That is what hooked me on Smith's first
novel—the heroes were contemporary human beings that, through their own intelligence and effort, managed to construct a spaceship and blast off into the Galaxy on an amazing adventure. In short, the reader could imagine such a thing happening to them.
Few books are written like that anymore. Most seem set in a distant future and the ones that are set in the near term are usually dark, gloomy portrayals of post industrial dystopias. What a bummer. So here is my modest attempt at an old fashioned space adventure, an adventure that anyone could find themselves in the midst of with a little luck. The science within is either based on present knowledge or is possible without violating current understanding. The boundaries are stretched a bit, after all this is a work of science
Having explained my motivation and hopefully set the stage for the reader, I must thank the multitude of friends and family members that were sucked into the literary maelstrom I created while writing the book. Heartfelt thanks go out to Clayton Ward, David Metheny, Stuart White and Brandon Willis, who each provided page by page corrections and suggestions. Also Dr. Erin Willis, who checked my medical details for plausibility. As always, Dr. Rik Faith kept me honest with regard to the science and physical aspects of adventuring into space. The book was much improved by their efforts.
With any such enterprise, it is customary to dragoon one's family into reviewing (or at least listening to readings of) the book in progress. My mother Mary and sister Melinda both offered enthusiastic support while my brother David and sister-in-law Brenda both reviewed the final product. The number of early readers is far too large to list them all here, but I did appreciate every review and word of encouragement.
Lastly, I would like to thank Allen Simmons, my coauthor on two previous works of non-fiction:
The Resilient Earth
The Energy Gap
. In fact, Al must be credited with getting me addicted to writing in the first place. He was my constant sounding-board, despite not being a real fan of science fiction. So, if you enjoy Parker's Folly, at least some of the credit belongs to Al and the others mentioned above.
This, of course, brings us to the obligatory disclaimers: all the characters in this book are fictional, not representations of any real person, living or dead; Any mistakes in the science, engineering, etc. are purely my own and not the responsibility any of those thanked above. The verse recited by the Captain in Chapter 15 is from
A Pirate Looks At 40
by Jimmy Buffett. The verse from
Arriving Somewhere But Not Here
by Steven Wilson,
Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. The book was written using OpenOffice and the cover art done using the GIMP. I do hope you enjoy this book. It is the first of a planned trilogy—the second book,
, has been written and I have started on the third.
Doug L. Hoffman
September 25, 2012
He could see them at the mouth of the ravine, where it emptied into the wadi. Arabs. At least they were dressed as Arabs, in long, flowing thobes with red-checked ghutras covering their heads. Each man also displayed that indispensable middle-eastern fashion item—an AK47. Even at this distance the curved magazines and distinctive forestocks were hard to miss.
They might be from the government or just some passing Bedouins, it made little difference. Here, in the wilds of the empty quarter, any group of armed men was a law unto themselves. As the armed party began the climb from the dry river bed, the observer zipped up his fly, turned and hurried back up the ravine.
Got to warn the Professor,
Hustling up the steeply pitched gully was harder than it looked. The mountain was made of purple-red basaltic rock—unusual in the eastern part of the peninsula where most of the bedrock belonging to the Nubian-Arabian shield was buried under a covering of limestones and sandstones—ancient strata that formed when dinosaurs still roamed the planet. But that was not the source of the difficulty.
It was the sand that impeded his upward progress, sand blown in from the surrounding desert that collected in the mountain's ravines and crevasses. The color of dried wheat stalks, Arabian sand had little in common with beach sand. It was gritty with a tendency to cling and possessed an almost greasy quality the seemed to hint at the oceans of crude oil buried beneath the rock below. Even as sand it was particularly useless: concrete made from it soon crumbled and fell apart. Arabia, a land synonymous with sand, had to import the stuff to build with.
Now, the useless stuff was tenaciously sucking at his boots as he scrambled for the cave near the top of the ravine. The entrance was lost in shadow, beneath a small overhang—perhaps the men climbing up the gully would miss it.
I hope they're friendly.
Crouching down to clear the low entrance, he duck walked into the cave that had been his workplace for the past three weeks. Inside there was an older man hunched over a collection of boxes. The faces of those boxes were aglow with numbers, moving squiggles and illuminated dials—an indication of electronics within.
“We are about to have company, Professor,” the younger man said, partially out of breath from his hasty ascent of the ravine. “They're dressed as locals and they're armed.”
“They probably just want to shake us down for a little baksheesh,” the older man said, not looking up from the instruments. “I think we're ready for another test. Go to the other station and shout when you are ready. Maybe we can run the test before we have to deal with the native problem.”
“But Professor, they'll be here any minute!”
The young man moved deeper into the cave, careful not to step on the wires running along the floor of the passageway. About 25 meters in, the curving tunnel ended. There stood another pile of softly glowing electronics. Wires led to probes, stuck on a smooth metallic surface about the size of a house door. That surface, or rather what that surface was a part of, was the reason why he and the Professor were in this cave, deep in the wastelands of Arabia, in the first place.
There was no logical explanation why there should be a smooth metallic surface embedded in volcanic rock that had formed several hundred million years ago. The surface appeared to be part of a larger object—more probes were attached to a similar, though smaller, exposed surface at the Professor's station. Neither of the researchers knew what the object was, how big it was or why it was here—they simply referred to it as the “artifact.”
And an artifact it was. Whatever its origins, the object embedded in the mountain before them was most certainly a made thing. If a light was played across its exposed surface cryptic symbols could be seen on or, more accurately, within the material. Symbols that shifted and moved with changes in the observer's viewing angle, much like the hologram embedded in a charge card.
Deciphering those symbols had consumed the Professor for the past several years—this was not his first foray into the desert wastelands or, indeed, to this very cave. He now claimed to have figured out at least some of the enigmatic symbols. As best he could tell, the markings were a puzzle: a collection of hints, possibly providing instructions for unlocking the artifact.
According to the Professor, the instructions said that a specific series of electrical pulses had to be applied simultaneously to different locations on the artifact's surface. But there was a catch: the transmission spots had to be more than 20 meters apart and the signals needed to be synchronized to within a few femtoseconds. Forced to look up the unfamiliar term, the assistant discovered that a femtosecond is one millionth of a nanosecond. In other words, a millionth of a billionth of a second.
Given that light travels nearly 300,000,000
meters per second, it takes about 70 nanoseconds to cross a distance of 20 meters. That delay was far too large for the required signals to be synchronized by simply running a wire or fiber-optic cable between the two transmission spots. Even using a central transmitter and two cables of exactly the same length proved problematic—the tolerances were just too exacting. Particularly considering that the transmission equipment would have to survive being hauled across the wastelands of the Arabian peninsula.
Here was a puzzle that seemed to require sending a signal faster than the speed of light—something human science said was impossible. Could the artifact be an alien version of a time capsule and the puzzle a test to make sure only sufficiently advanced beings could open it? No stupid ape-men need apply. Naturally, it took the professor quite a while to come up with a solution, but solve it he did.
The solution was quite elegant. He found a paper describing a device called a salphasic clock.
The paper explained a method that used the properties of standing waves to substantially reduce clock skews due to unequal length transmission paths. Originally intended for use in computer systems, it was soon adapted to help synchronize the (hopefully) artifact opening signals.
The salphasic clock did not make it possible to send a signal faster than light. What it did was provide a heartbeat signal that occurred at exactly the same time at both ends of a cable regardless of length. This, in theory, would allow other equipment to slowly shift the offset between the two signals until the required synchronization was achieved. In theory.
“Ready, Professor,” the young man called out, his voice echoing down the passageway.
“Clock up, starting synchronization run,” came the answer.
They had been through this dozens of times before with little success. Some small glitch would always mess up the procedure. And it was hard to concentrate on the equipment with a party of armed men about to burst in on them.
As if his thoughts triggered the event, a new voice shouting in Arabic could be heard echoing within the cave. He heard the professor greet the strangers.
“Salam alaikum.” Peace be upon you.
The reply was a rapid stream of Arabic, from which the young man only understood
—unbeliever. And then the unthinkable.
There was a burst of sound—loud, flat cracks that could only be gunfire. More yelling in Arabic and another burst of gunfire, felt as much as heard within the confined space of the cave.
they've killed the Professor.
Then it dawned on him that he was trapped in the cave with no way out and no place to hide. As sure as the intruders had killed the Professor, his own death would follow shortly.
This was not the way his life was supposed to end. His academic career had barely started when he signed on to be the professor's assistant. This trip to the desert mountains of eastern Arabia was a way to build his resume, to get some field time, to begin a life of scholarship. Instead his future was about to be taken from him.
His head was spinning. To steady himself he raised an arm to head height and placed it cross wise against the artifact's smooth, unyielding surface. Squeezing his eyes tightly shut in a vain effort to stop the hot tears that ran down his cheeks, he could hear the killers making their way down the tunnel toward him. Feeling a weakness born of utter helplessness, the young man leaned his head against his arm.
As he moved to lean against the artifact, signals from the two sets of electronic instruments achieved that which had previously eluded the two scientists. Synchronization.
Within the artifact an intelligence awoke. Within a few hundred femtoseconds it had evaluated the entrance code. Signals were sent, subsystems activated, sensors aligned. The situation outside of the hull was analyzed at length, several nanoseconds past as the intelligence weighed options.